In a rare televised address on August 8th, Japan’s aging Emperor Akihito put an end to weeks of speculation by hinting openly that he would like to stand down. Alluding to his failing health and growing inability to meet the demands of his role, the 82-year-old ceremonial monarch told viewers his stamina levels have been in gradual decline for some time. Akihito has been treated for heart problems, bronchitis and cancer in recent years.
In a ten minute pre-recorded speech, one of only two the sitting ruler has ever delivered, the emperor said he would like to see an orderly imperial family succession, as opposed to the drawn-out period of mourning the nation traditionally indulges in when a ruler dies. After tiptoeing up to the line, he stopped short of calling for the constitutional reform that would be required to allow him to abdicate. Even though recent opinion polls have suggested the Japanese public would be sympathetic to his early retirement, many reacted to Akihito’s speech with shock and sorrow.
An abdication on Akihito’s part would require involves a rethink of Japan’s relationship with the Imperial Household. Even though abdications were common for much of Japan’s millennia-long history, many of the legal structures governing the royal family’s status date from the 19th and early 20th century—when Japanese law was reshaped to cast the monarch as something of a divine figure. This status is reflected in Japan’s legal system, which has no provision for abdication. What’s more, enabling this would require a rethink of the Imperial Household Law and even a redrafting of the country’s Constitution, in which Article 1 defines the Emperor as the “symbol of the state”. A major point of contention is Article 4, which prohibits Akihito from having any powers related to government – meaning that if the government decides to act and make legal changes enabling the Emperor to abdicate, it could be construed as unconstitutional political involvement by the Imperial Household.
Akihito, of course, is an unconventional reformist who not shied away from breaking down the social barriers separating the Imperial Household from its subjects. Even without a political role, he has left a deep mark on Japan ever since he ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 1989. He has championed several important humanitarian causes – both before and during his reign – and has sought to heal the wounds of World War Two and bring the nation’s monarchy closer to its people. In a break from his predecessors, Akihito embraced the moniker given to him by the Japanese – “the People’s Emperor.”
In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the Emperor and his wife emerged as the public faces of relief efforts, regularly visiting affected areas and meeting with the displaced. The nuclear crisis prompted the Emperor to give his first televised address to the nation, during which he spoke in modern Japanese that could be easily understood by the wider public and expressed hope that lives could be saved. The Imperial couple have offered their continual support to the people of Fukushima Prefecture, making the most recent of their five post-earthquake visits to the region in March of this year.
However, perhaps the most important impact Akihito had was to use his imperial prestige to reach out to the least privileged members of Japan’s society, building bridges between conflicting social classes. One of the best examples of this conviction in action came during Tokyo’s hosting of the 1964 Summer Olympics, when the future emperor was crown prince. Akihito directly challenged the deeply ingrained social stigmas attached to the disabled by enthusiastically backing the Paralympics, overseeing both the opening and closing ceremonies along with his wife. The 1964 Games were revolutionary for disabled sport in Japan, leading to the establishment of a range of organizations dedicated to the support and promotion of the Paralympic movement in the country and beyond. Without the support of Akihito, one of the few people influential enough to shatter Japan’s highly conservative culture, such a bold shift in public attitudes might not have been possible.
With Tokyo once again preparing to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2020, memories of 1964 show just how much the country has changed over the past 50 years. When the Summer Games were last held in Japan, the country was still emerging from the deprivations of the Second World War and wanted to prove it was ready to emerge on to the world stage as a modern nation. In bidding for the 2020 Games, Japan was again in mourning, this time recovering from the Fukushima incident. Securing the hosting rights despite the damage inflicted by the earthquake and the nuclear disaster was celebrated as a miraculous victory and an event that helped bring the Japanese together as a nation. While allegations of financial misconduct lodged by French authorities have put a damper on the successful bid, several observers have wondered whether France’s own ambition of landing the 2024 Olympics might lead it to harbor ulterior motives.
As Akihito prepares his retreat from the spotlight, Oxford-educated Crown Prince Naruhito will step in. The 56-year heir apparent has a degree in water transport systems and is an avid skier and viola player – an uncommon mix as far as Japanese royalty goes. However, much like his father before him, Naruhito has sought to reform Japan’s social mores by advocating for issues like hands-on fathering, a rather controversial idea for a country where gender expectations remain powerful. Much like their counterparts in Western Europe, the next generation of Japan’s royals seem committed to the transformation of the imperial family into a personable, approachable symbol of the nation—a transformation Akihito has contributed to immeasurably.